Transferring public assets into community ownership
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2008
Look in any town or village in the country, and the chances are that you may discover a rather neglected public building which the local authority is struggling to find the resources to maintain. Councils have over the years inherited a patchwork of properties - old council offices, halls, former schools, sports pavilions and adult education centres, for example – which local communities often consider to be ‘theirs' but which councils find it difficult to look after and modernise.
One answer, according to the government, is to encourage communities themselves to take over the management and ownership of the properties. According to Ruth Kelly, it's a way of giving local people a bigger stake in the future of their own areas: “There are clear benefits to local groups owning or managing community assets,” she says. The government is now strongly encouraging local authorities to consider ways in which they can transfer their assets across to community groups.
The key document, known as the Quirk report, came out last summer, and since then the government has undertaken a number of initiatives in order to, as it puts it, prise open the transfer window. For example, an initial £30m pot of money, administered by the Big Lottery Fund, has been made available for asset transfer initiatives in England .
There are problems with the idea of moving properties out of the democratic control of local authorities: for example, do community groups have the skills and resources necessary to look after the sometimes difficult task of managing old buildings? How do you stop a community resource falling into the hands of a small clique? How do you know if the property offered for transfer to community control really is an asset, and not a liability?
Nevertheless, the momentum behind the idea of asset transfer is growing rapidly. For communities which are currently fighting to save a public building, or where there are worries about its long-term future, this may be the way forward.
The Quirk report talks about the importance of local authorities working n partnership with community groups, rather than expecting each community to do all the work itself. In practice, whether you can expect your local council to help you with an asset transfer is likely to depend on where you live. Local authorities range from enthusiastic to extremely cautious.
If you feel that there is the potential in your own town or village to investigate community asset transfer, there are a number of places to turn for help. The Development Trust Association has a dedicated webpage, and is also working closely with the national association for community centres, Community Matters. Both associations have specialist staff who may be able to offer detailed help and advice. This is an area where future government initiatives (including new funding opportunities) can be expected in the months ahead.
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